Friday, October 30, 2009

Sweet Home Chicago

Earlier this year, as the Braves and Yankees met in an interleague series, Jay and I decided to revisit both the 1996 and 1999 World Series between the two clubs, much like we did earlier this week with the 1950 Yanks-Phils World Series. In addition to recaps of each of the six games in the '96 Series, I tacked on an additional entry summarizing my personal memories of that Series.

In short, I was pumped that the Yankees were back in the World Series for the first time since I was a year old. Games One and Two were in New York, and the Yankees dropped them both. Game One was postponed a day by rain, but was a total beat down when played, with Andruw Jones knocking two out of the park. The morning of Game Three I boarded a plane, flew to Washington D.C. for a conference, and spent the remainder of the World Series there. I returned the following Sunday, the day of a potential Game Seven that wasn't be necessary. While in D.C. I didn't get to watch the games as closely as I wanted to, but the Yankees didn't lose again, taking home their first Championship in my lifetime.

I thought of those days quite often this week. The Phillies entered this Series as the defending World Champions, the first NL club to do so since those '96 Braves. They defeated the Yankees convincingly in a rainy Game One, with Chase Utley hitting two home runs. Thankfully Game Two went a little different this time around.

Tomorrow afternoon I'm going to hop on a plane again. I'm heading to Chicago, and I'll remain there until Thursday morning, the day of a potential Game Seven. Thanks to work obligations, I likely will miss the early innings of at least Games Four and Five.

This trip has been scheduled for quite some time. There's no getting out of it. At some point maybe two months ago, I realized that it would be happening smack dab in the middle of the World Series, and that it could have a negative impact on my watching my favorite team in the Series. A few weeks ago I had a sit down with my boss, who is British and does not like baseball at all. I explained my potential conundrum, and thankfully he lent a sympathetic ear. I'm hopeful I'll be given a bit of leeway next week so that I can watch the games in their entirety.

And yet, part of me isn't worried. In an old Simpsons episode, Lisa walks by Bart's room, and overhears him praying for a snowstorm to postpone the test for which he is not prepared. "Prayer," she says to herself, "the last refuge of a scoundrel". I like to think of myself as a bit better than a scoundrel, and I don't believe that the folks who answer prayers are particularly interested in baseball. But the tension of the post-season does have the ability to turn my usually rational self into a bit of a superstitious being.

I've never been in my home state of Connecticut when the Yankees have won the World Series. I was in D.C. in '96 and away at college in '98, '99, in '00. A good part of me can't wait to get on that plane tomorrow; I'm hoping it'll play out like the previous times I've been away from home during Yankee World Series appearances. For strictly superstitious reasons, I'm looking forward to calling Chicago my sweet home for the next five days.

What If George Steinbrenner Bought The Buccaneers?

One of the several big media stories Wednesday was that George Steinbrenner would be at Yankee Stadium for Game One of the World Series. Now 79 years old, The Boss's health has reportedly been in decline for some time. His public appearances have been few and far between, and the man who was once a daily quote machine for the New York tabloids now speaks only through rare and bland statements released through his public relations man. But without George and his dedication to expending every possible resource to win, it's unlikely there would be a new Yankee Stadium to visit, and equally unlikely there would be a World Series Game One to attend.

Thursday, a seemingly unrelated story broke. Tampa radio station WDAE reported that the Glazer family was putting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers up for sale, citing the family's reported two billion dollar debt as owners of the English Premier League's Manchester United as the cause for the Bucs hitting the market. The Glazers denied the report later Thursday afternoon.

The two stories falling on successive days made me think back to the mid-nineties, the last time the Bucs were up for sale. Original owner Hugh Culverhouse died August 26, 1994, and his estate decided to sell the team. Long the laughingstock of the league and playing in dilapidated Tampa Stadium, the franchise was ripe for relocation.

The Rams and Raiders were a year away from leaving Los Angeles, with the Raiders returning to Oakland and the Rams heading to St. Louis, which the Cardinals had vacated six years earlier. The Colts had moved to Indianapolis from Baltimore ten years earlier, and the Charm City was two years away from poaching the Browns from Cleveland to replace them. The Oilers were three years away from leaving Houston for Tennessee. In other words, plenty of cities were in the market for an NFL franchise.

As the bidders lined up for the Bucs, several potential ownership groups hung their hat on a promise to keep the team in Tampa. One such bidder was a Tampa resident with an extensive history as a sportsman in football, basketball, horse racing, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and baseball: George M. Steinbrenner III.

On January 17, 1995 the team was sold to Malcolm Glazer, another bidder who promised to keep the team in Tampa. Glazer's offer exceeded Steinbrenner's by about $12M and the sale included a provision for a $35M penalty if the franchise was moved within 10 years. Three years later the Bucs opened state-of-the-art Raymond James Stadium, less than a mile from the Yankees Spring Training complex and what is now George M. Steinbrenner Field. In his eighth season as owner, Glazer hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, a far cry from his team's current 0-7 state.

As the Yankees chase their seventh World Championship of the Steinbrenner Era, I can't help but wonder how the past 15 years of Yankee history would have unfolded had Steinbrenner bought the Bucs. At the time of the sale, baseball was embroiled in the worst labor dispute in its history. Steinbrenner was less than two years removed from returning from his second suspension at the hands of Major League Baseball, and since his return had taken a less active/disruptive role than he had in his heyday. He had owned the Yankees for more than twenty years at that point, and had often been criticized for running the franchise like a football team, likely stemming from his time as a graduate assistant at Ohio St and as an assistant coach at Purdue and then Northwestern in the 1950s.

At the time of the sale, the NFL had a bylaw prohibiting its owners from owning other sports franchises. Less than two years earlier, Wayne Huizenga, who already owned the Florida Marlins and the NHL's Florida Panthers, upped his minority share in the Miami Dolphins to a majority share. As a result of the NFL's bylaw, Huizenga was forced to place his Dolphins ownership stake into a trust until the league evaluated the situation. They eventually rescinded the bylaw, but not before Huizenga spent four years as an absentee owner.

No sooner did the NFL allow Huizenga to keep all three teams, the financial strain forced him to begin selling. His Marlins won the World Series seven months after the ruling came down, but he immediately gutted the team and the next year sold them to current Red Sox owner John Henry. Three years after that he divested himself of the Panthers as well.

We'll never know what would have happened had Steinbrenner bought the Buccaneers. But we do know that in light of the Huizenga situation he would have entered the purchase eyes wide open, knowing his ownership of the Yankees would have posed a problem to the NFL. Would Steinbrenner, a notorious control freak, have had the self-restraint to put his $180M investment in a trust for two years? Or would he have wanted to return to the sport that was his first love and play with his new toy right away? Steinbrenner had reduced his level of control with the Yankees and was already making threats about moving in his quest for a new stadium. Had he purchased the Bucs might he have put the Yankees up for sale? Or, if he kept them both would he have been forced to sell at some point, as Huizenga was? Would his sizeable investment in an NFL franchise have prevented the Yankees payroll from expanding year after year?

Thankfully we never had to discover the answers to those questions. In the fifteen years since Steinbrenner lost out to Glazer, the Steinbrenner Family has reaffirmed its commitment to the New York Yankees. They've captured seven pennants and four Championships, with a fifth just three wins away. They've built a brand new stadium in the Bronx and have invested close to two billion dollars in player payroll since then. Though George has faded to the background, his children have shown no signs of changing things. The organization appears to be in good shape for years to come.

Quotes From Last Night: Game 2 Edition

Presented without comment. Please react in the comments as you see fit:
Jerry Davis (in reference to Brian Gorman's call on Ryan Howard's play in the 7th): "The objective is to get it right, we asked each other what we had seen and the replay confirmed we got it right"

Ryan Howard: “Did I catch it? Well, they called him out. [winks]”

Dave Cameron: The first two Jeter bunt attempts will be criticized by members of the statistical community as part of the reflexive don’t-bunt-ever strategy that has gained too much popularity, but they were the right play. The two-strike bunt attempt really was a bad idea (the additional cost of a foul turning into an out reduces the odds enough to make swinging away more likely to produce a single run, which was the original goal), but the first two stabs at it, Jeter was making the right play.

Jimmy Rollins (via The Fightins): "I was expecting some of that [Philadelphia rowdiness] here, but it was very tame and civilized, really. "You only had one big cheer, and that was on home runs."

Rollins was asked if this feels "more like a World Series" than last year's Series with Tampa Bay.

"When we get to Philly, it will," he said. Because the atmosphere will be so different? "Exactly."

Ken Rosenthal: Is it too late to reopen the old Yankee Stadium one more time?

Pedro Martinez was in the house Thursday night — Pedro Martinez, the old Boston devil. The crowd of 50,181 mustered a few spontaneous, "Who's your daddy?" chants. But more often than not, the fans needed a prompt from the stadium organ to get going.

Bob Raissman: Wonder how they felt about Fox's Tim McCarver and Joe Buck basically saying the joint had all the audio ambiance of a morgue. The voices were not talking about the building's acoustics. During Game 2 of World Series Thursday night, they were talking about Yankee fans (at least the ones who can still afford a ticket) who checked their mouths at the door.

John Gonzalez, Philly Inquirer: Scariest looking guy in the entire park, though, was A.J. Burnett. When did he remember how to pitch?

I got a text from my buddy Fearce before the eighth inning that pretty much summed up what I was thinking: "I don't know what to do when I can't really complain about bad calls or the announcers hating Philly. Feels weird."

Charlie Manuel: "We can hit Rivera. We've proved that. He's good. He's one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He's very good. But I've seen our team handle good pitching, and we're definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game."

Pedro Martinez
(via The 700 Level): "I didn't feel strong. I've been under the weather the last couple of days. That's not an excuse. I felt good enough to make pitches and that's what I told them and they trusted me. But I was going to take this start. When I chose this team it was to pitch in the World Series. I'm extremely happy to have had the opportunity."

All's Well That Ends Well

Good morning, Fackers. We can all exhale a bit as the Yankees did what they had to do last night in order to even the series on the way to Philly. The outcome was on the line until the very last at bat, and there were a lot of people that were acquitted of some bad decision making when Matt Stairs went down swinging.

Joe Girardi made a couple less-than-optimal line up choices, Derek Jeter made a terrible, inadvisable bunt attempt with an 0-2 count, and the umpires made two incorrect calls on double plays within an inning of each other. Fortunately, the two guys that Girardi inserted both responded with positive contributions, and the mistakes by Jeter and the umpires were saved from more intense scrutiny by Mariano Rivera's two inning save.

Most importantly, A.J. Burnett came up with a dominant performance and saved Girardi's hide from the most obvious backlash. Burnett needs to pitch well in every game Molina catches him or else it becomes a bad decision in hindsight. Molina did a good job of corralling the breaking balls he bounced in the dirt and they seemed to be on the same page in terms of pitch selection for the most part.

As far as his offensive contributions go, Jose Molina was never in real danger of getting a hit in his first at bat as he took six pitches and fouled one back from Pedro Martinez on the way to working a walk. He grounded out to weakly to third in his only other plate appearance.

The one play where Molina truly made his presence felt was on a snap throw to first, just inches behind Raul Ibanez's head, to erase Jayson Werth's lead off single in the fourth. You can debate the merits of having Molina behind the plate in terms of pitch calling, but it's inarguable that Molina's throwing arm is a tremendous asset. Posada simply never makes that play.

Surprisingly, with Philly's lefty-heavy line up and two righties in Burnett and Rivera on the mound, Jerry Hairston's defense didn't really come into play. He didn't make any great plays nor did he miss any by a couple of feet. What he did do was come up with a big base hit to lead off the 7th inning against Pedro and Brett Gardner (who replaced him as a pinch runner) came around to score an important insurance run.

The end goal of a manager's moves should be to put the best team on the field with the information available at the time. Joe Girardi's two decisions worked out well for him, but doesn't mean that they were the right ones. Girardi got away with those calls, but Derek Jeter wasn't so fortune with the choice he made.

With two men on, no one and a run already under their belts in the 7th inning, the Yankees looked as if they were poised to break the game open. Against Chan Ho Park, Jeter showed bunt and took a strike on the first pitch. He watched another fastball go past for the second strike. Before the third pitch, Tim McCarver boldly stated that "there's no way Jeter's bunting again", which seemed like a mind-numbingly obvious point at the time, but Jeter actually did bunt.

Bunting with one or no strikes in this spot with a hitter as good as Jeter at the plate is a bad decision. Bunting with two strikes - where the most likely scenario is giving away an out to move the runners over and the second most likely one is to bunt foul and give away an out for nothing - is inexcusable. Jeter would have to have gotten that bunt down something like 80 or 90% of the time (which is clearly much higher than even the best bunter's success rate) for that to be a defensible play. He admitted that it was a "stupid decision" during the postgame press conference but had the luxury of a win to cover up his impulsive and foolish move.

Brian Gorman was similarly left off the hook by the result of the game. He made two wrong calls at a very crucial part of the contest but luckily the one that was the biggest rally killer was called against the team that was already leading. The difference between having the bases loaded and being out of the inning like the Yankees would have been had Gorman saw the ball hit the ground ebfore Ryan Howard's glove is 1.65 runs on average. Had Gorman got the play at first involving Utley in the top of the 8th, it would have been the difference of .538 runs. So please don't tell me "we're even" because the calls went both ways.

Gorman was not in a great position to see the ball on the play by Howard, but the first baseman had to reach across his body and glove the ball thumb down to make the play; more likely the way to catch a short hop than a ball on the fly. Howard reacted as if he didn't catch the ball when he fired it wildly to second base but Gorman had already made the call. It might not have been his fault, but that's all the more reason to institute replay; to examine plays that the umpire could not have made correctly with any level of certainty.

Flying under the radar in all of this is Alex Rodriguez, who went 0-4 with three strikeouts last night and is now 0-8 with 6 Ks in the series. Luckily for him, there are other things to make a big deal out of.

The reactions to a win are always going to be softened by the enjoyment of the victory. We should be thankful that the Yanks came away on top because if they had lost last night, it would have left a bitter taste for a long, long time.

Back To Even

For all the complaining that we did about Joe Girardi's managerial decisions before the game, the difference between having not having Jorge Posada and Gardner/Hinske/Swisher in the line up was not that big in terms of run expectancy. When the tires met the road in the Bronx last night, the most critical factor to the Yankees' success was the performance of their starting pitcher.

We had already seen both sides of A.J. Burnett this postseason, the good in the Game 2 of the ALDS & ALCS and the bad out in Game 5 in Anaheim. He was probably the cause for the most concern heading into the game, but the moves Girardi made with the line up temporarily put that aside.

What we got from Burnett last night was his best start of this postseason in the biggest spot he's been asked to pitch. He allowed the Phillies to score first when, after he had recorded two outs, they stacked up a ground rule double by Raul Ibanez and a single by Matt Stairs to go ahead 1-0.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were making Pedro Martinez throw a lot of pitches but not getting much out of it. Through three innings, Pedro had thrown 60 pitches but the Yankees had managed only two baserunners and no runs. Surprisingly, Jose Molina was one of the ones who reached base and did so via a 7 pitch at bat ending in a walk.

Leading off the 4th inning the Yanks finally broke through. Pedro threw Mark Teixeira two back to back change ups - both out of the zone - but Teixeira extended his bat to the second one, reaching out to redirect it into the Yankees' bullpen and tie the game at 1.

Both pitchers continued to deal through the middle innings. After the run in the second inning Burnett shut down the Phillies, allowing only 4 men to reach base in the next 5 innings, one of whom (Jayson Werth) was picked off by a Jose Molina snap throw. He ended with a flourish as he struck out Raul Ibanez and Matt Stairs both looking - the duo who had combined for the Phillies only run - on the way to a 1-2-3 7th inning.

His final line was 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 9K. Thanks in part to delivering first pitch strikes to 22 of the 29 batters he faced, Burnett limited his walks and needed 108 pitches to get through those seven frames.

Pedro settled down after the homer from Teixeira and struck out both Teix and A-Rod to begin the sixth inning. Hideki Matsui came to the plate and immediately fell behind 0-2. Still behind 1-2 three pitches later, Matsui swung at a breaking ball well below the strikezone and lifted it out over the right field wall, giving the Yankees their first lead of the World Series.

In between the sixth and seventh inning, FOX showed a shot of Charlie Manuel talking to Pedro in the dugout, seemingly asking him if he was okay to go out to the mound for the 7th inning. He had thrown 99 pitches and given up a home run in the last inning, so it seemed like a good time to yank him. However, Pedro nodded and sure enough, took the mound when the 7th inning began.

First up was Jerry Hairston, Jr., who fell behind in the count 0-2. He took a ball and fouled off three more pitches before chipping a curveball to right field for a single. Melky strode to the plate next and showed bunt on the first pitch. It was just a decoy as the Yanks put on the hit and run and the next one and Melky jerked a single to right of his own.

This brought up Jose Molina's spot in the line up and Posada was called to pinch hit. Manuel, probably trying to avoid a Grady Little-type situation (1st & 3rd, Posada up, leaving Pedro in too long), went to his bullpen for Chan Ho Park. Perdo was obligatorily taunted on his way back to the dugout but put up a respectable performance, striking out 8 in 6 innings while giving up 3 runs, 6 hits and two walks.

Off of Park, Posada notched the third straight single of the inning, driving home a run. Up next, Derek Jeter bunted the first pitch foul and took the next one for a strike. Next, in a move that was certainly not called by the bench, Jeter attempted to bunt with two strikes but it went foul for an out. Why a hitter as good as Jeter would choose to bunt with an 0-2 count there is beyond comprehension. But wasn't the costliest error of the inning to the Yanks.

That would belong to first base umpire Brian Gorman. Against a new pitcher, Scott Eyre, Johnny Damon looped a ball towards an approaching Ryan Howard at first base. At full speed the first time through, I assumed the ball had bounced. I think Ryan Howard did do as it whipped the ball towards second base to try to get the advancing Posada instead if simply walking to first to tag the base. However, Gorman called the ball a catch and the Phillies got a double play. Instead of having the bases loaded with one out, the Yanks were out of the inning.

Since the Yankees only had a two run lead, Mariano Rivera was summoned for another two inning save. The Phillies worked him in the 8th, putting two men on base and making Mo throw 23 pitches despite inducing an inning ending double play to Chase Utley. Replays showed that Utley was safe by a fraction at first. C.B. Bucknor and Phill Cuzzi have already mailed their thank you cards to Gorman.

In the top of the 9th, Rivera allowed a two out double to Ibanez but struck out Matt Stairs swinging to end the game. The Yanks won 3-1 and the terrible managerial decisions before the game and umpiring mistakes within it won't be as tough to swallow. Molina and Hairston both made significant positive contributions. The Yanks didn't need those extra insurance runs. The Series is all square and headed to Philly.